Last night I sat at Writers & Books, a local shop devoted to the literary arts, writing feverishly on my NaNoWriMo novel. Though it is not my store, I positioned myself close to the main entrance to greet passers-by and explain to them why there were a bunch of people sitting and writing.
A man came in. An older man. Clean, tidy, but looking a little worn. He had come to read a poem at the Open Mic night that was happening upstairs. He asked some questions, then went upstairs to read to the crowd.
There was something about him that seemed familiar. I’ve seen it before. He was smiling, but he wasn’t all right.
After the reading, he came back down. He sat at the table with me and asked if we could talk. Of course, I said. Something about him told me he needed to talk. Something said he had a story to tell. There was an urgency about him. He wanted to be heard, so I listened. My novel could wait.
He spoke of loss, losing parts, and facing death. I nodded, saying I didn’t have such experiences, and I was grateful for it. I felt for him. He was in pain, despite his warm eyes and smile.
Then he said this was the first time in a long time he’d gone out to talk to people, to share his words. He spoke of being jerked around in the VA system. Then I knew.
That’s what was familiar about him.
A veteran. A man who has seen things that cannot be unseen. Who’s stood on the edge of life. Who’s stuck here now, surrounded by people who have absolutely no idea what he’s been through. Who can’t possibly relate.
People who have never actually experienced hardship in their entire lives, no matter what they might say.
The people who are supposed to be helping have never looked death in the eye. All they have is what’s written in books, which – so far as I can tell – is almost completely useless.
He didn’t have to tell me that he has PTSD (though he later did). I knew.
So I leaned forward and listened. I nodded when appropriate. I admitted to him that I couldn’t really relate, but that I knew his story was important.
I’m soft. I know.
After perhaps a half hour, he left. He thanked me for listening and gave me the hard copy of the poetry he had read earlier.
I hope that our conversation helped him. I hope that he gets out more often. I hope that he can find peace.
I hope this for all the people I know who deal with PTSD. I hope this for all my friends who are getting jerked around by the VA system. I really do.
In the end, I still can’t relate. I’m spoiled, I know. My life is cushy. But at least I know.
I hope that by reading this, others can know better, too.